Truck driver fatigue is a leading cause of truck accidents. As many as 13 percent of commercial truck drivers are fatigued at the time of a crash, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study. The FMCSA notes that truck driver fatigue can result from inadequate sleep, lengthy hours of work, physical or mental exertion that harms performance, or strenuous activities.
Unfortunately, all these contributing factors can occur all too easily in truck drivers, singly or in combination. Driving with too little sleep is a significant concern among all drivers in the U.S. Drowsy driving caused 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 fatalities during 2013, the last year for which statistics are available. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes these numbers are significantly underestimated, and as many as 6,000 deaths could be caused by drowsy driving every year.
Commercial truck drivers are far more likely to drive drowsy or fatigued than other drivers, according to the CDC.
Forty-five people died in Florida truck accidents in 2017, according to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA). According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV), 225 truck accidents caused incapacitating injuries and 771 truck accidents caused non-incapacitating injuries. All too many may have either been caused entirely by trucker fatigue or had truck driver fatigue as a contributing factor to the more visible cause, such as collision, an overturned truck, a jack-knifed truck, or a spillage of cargo.
This may seem like a relatively small number—it’s just 1 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities that year, according to NHTSA statistics. But the fact is, any truck accident poses a major danger to life, limb, and property. Big rigs can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Even trucks classified as light can weight up to 10,000 pounds, twice the size of a car. Trucks are huge; their accidents can cause traffic pile-ups and debris that themselves cause more accidents.
Driver fatigue exerts a negative effect on many functions that drivers need to perform well, including vision, reaction time, coordination, and judgment. A driver can veer into oncoming highway traffic if he falls asleep, causing a devastating head-on collision. Or he may forget to check his blind spot before changing lanes. Blind spots are extensive on trucks, and a side-swipe collision may result.
Driver fatigue and sleep deprivation symptoms are very similar to the symptoms one sees in drivers under the influence of alcohol. Twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation causes drivers to be as impaired as someone with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.10 percent, over the legal limit for driving under the influence.
Causes of Driver Fatigue
Why are truck drivers fatigued? There can be many reasons. Commercial truck drivers are required by federal law to abide by limits on their hours of service without rest breaks. They are mandated to break after 11 straight hours of driving, when that period occurs after taking 10 straight hours off. They are mandated to stop driving once they’re driven for 14 hours. Truck drivers are not supposed to drive more than 60 hours in one week or more than 70 hours in eight days.
There are three problems with the federal rules, however. First, it’s certainly possible for truck drivers to get fatigued and drowsy when they abide by the laws. Eleven hours of driving is an extensive period of driving, and can be fatiguing by itself. Sixty hours in a week is a heavy slate of driving, and so is 70 hours within eight days.
Second, the realities of rule enforcement are such that drivers don’t always have regular schedules. As a result, they may not be able to establish a regular sleep pattern that allows them to sleep when they’re not driving. Yes, they need to be off for 10 hours before starting to drive a maximum of 11 consecutive hours without a break. But no one enforces, or can enforce, whether they actually sleep during those hours, and they may have had an irregular schedule beforehand that makes sleep difficult.
Drivers may be tempted to use substances as sleep aids or to wake up as a result, and both these types of substances can impair judgment, response time, reflexes, and driving. Globally, roughly 30 percent of truck drivers admit to using amphetamines, which can make them feel more alert—but doesn’t lead to better driving, and can lead to impairment.
Third, truck drivers may feel pressured to drive whether they are fatigued or not, and to drive over the Federal limits. There are many reasons they may feel this pressure, or may actually be pressured by trucking companies or subcontractors. Trucking companies make their money by delivering cargo, often across great distances. The truckers may feel that they must make the deliveries by pre-set deadlines. Some companies set the deadlines without taking traffic patterns and potential accidents or construction delays into account.
Unfortunately, some trucking companies may actually set unreasonable deadlines, which makes the drivers more prone to behavior that can result in accidents—either speeding, working longer hours without breaks, or even violating the Federal standards.
Some truck drivers are paid by the mile, rather than the hour. If they are delayed by an accident, traffic jams, or construction, they may feel financially in a pinch if they don’t try to make up the time. As a result, they may speed or drive longer than Federal guidelines indicate they should.
Fourth, truckers that do not operate in interstate commerce do not have to abide by the federal regulations. Instead, they must follow state regulations, which in Florida are more lax than the federal standards.
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What Should I Do if I Suspect Fatigue as a Cause of a Truck Accident?
Driver fatigue can to some extent form a hidden cause of an accident. Many collisions and rollovers, for example, can have fatigue as a sole or contributing cause, because these common truck accidents can have poor judgment or slow reflexes as a cause.
But it’s also possible to see a truck weaving or speeding before an accident, and fatigue can be one of the causes of those behaviors. An out-of-control truck or one driving in oncoming traffic could be a sign that the driver has fallen asleep. Egregious errors in judgment, such as pulling out into heavy oncoming traffic, could also be a sign of fatigue.
It’s also possible that, if you are in an accident and stop and exchange information with the driver, you will notice fatigue or an associated symptom on the part of the driver. Bleariness, stumbling or hesitant speech, and appearing tired or disoriented can all be signs of fatigue.
If you notice any signs of fatigue, it’s prudent to do two things. First, mention these signs to the police or other law enforcement officer who comes to make a report on the accident. Police reports aren’t conclusive evidence of fatigue, but they can indicate that driver fatigue was a concern of yours at the scene.
Second, it’s prudent to consult an experienced truck accident lawyer if you or a loved one was harmed or even killed in the accident. The causes of truck accidents are complex and often need to be investigated. Driver fatigue as a cause will likely need to be one of the factors investigated. An attorney and the associated investigative team have many methods of investigating driver fatigue, including the following.
Looking at the Truck’s Records
Drivers need to record their hours of service using one of several different methods. Newer trucks often have built-in systems that record how many hours a driver has been behind the wheel. Some simply monitor; others don’t allow the driver to go on once daily or weekly hour mandated limits are reached.
Other trucks have a logbook in which the drivers manually enter their hours. They track miles driven rather than hours, but mileage can be used to estimate time on the road, and thus potential fatigue. The drivers are often paid according to logbooks, so they are incentivized to keep frequent and accurate records.
Reviewing Other Records
If in-cab monitoring or logbooks aren’t available, other records can be examined. (Some accidents destroy records, and drivers occasionally destroy their logbooks if they are afraid that those records could show fatigued driving.)
Other records that can be used to assess fatigue include:
- Receipts of tolls – Toll receipts, whether electronic or paper, show times and dates. These can be used to calculate mileage and thus how long the truck driver was working. Freeways, roads, and bridges frequently have tolls.
- Gas receipts – Gas receipts too are frequently stamped with the time and date. These can be used to review times between stops and mileage. Personal and company credit cards that may have been used for gas can show the times and dates as well.
- Hotel receipts – On long hauls, truckers are likely to stay in hotels. These receipts, as well, can be used to determine total mileage in a day and how long the day, between checking out and checking in, was.
- Bills of lading – Cargo loaded onto a truck will come with bills of lading, stamped with the time. This can give an idea of how many miles the driver was on the road before the accident and how many hours.
- Surveillance cameras – An increasing number of places in the U.S. are subject to surveillance cameras, particularly intersections and interchanges. Many hotels, stores, gas stations, and parking lots also are equipped with surveillance cameras. Surveillance cameras can be used to examine the driver’s demeanor, actions, and appearance for signs of fatigue, as well as to look at the accident itself if it was caught on surveillance footage.
Who Is Responsible if a Driver Is Fatigued?
Drivers are responsible for safely and responsibly operating their vehicles. That includes taking care to not become fatigued or drowsy. If they aren’t operating the truck safely or responsibly, they have failed a general duty of care, and can be judged negligent if the failure caused an accident that harmed people or property.
However, other parties can certainly be responsible as well. The trucking company can be deemed partly or entirely responsible if it can be proved that they pressured the drivers or even encouraged them to violate federal standards.
In addition, of course, all accidents can have multiple causes. If another driver violates right-of-way rules, for example, and the action is partially or entirely responsible for the accident, the other driver may have caused the accident, whether the truck driver was fatigued or not.
Truck accidents can also have very complex causes. Inadequate maintenance or improper loading of a truck can cause accidents, partly because it makes steering and braking very difficult. These issues can cause an accident, partly or entirely. If that’s the case, the entity responsible for maintenance or loading can be responsible, whether it’s a trucking company or a subcontractor the trucking company has hired to do certain tasks.
Defective equipment can also cause an accident, and in that case, the manufacturer or a number of entities that were responsible for the design, the parts, or other elements can bear responsibility for an accident.
Finally, road conditions can contribute measurably to an accident or cause one outright. A missing or faulty traffic signal or sign may cause an accident, as can unclear road construction signs, or even poor traffic design. The entities responsible for these are often state, local, or city governments. Responsible parties can be sued for harm caused by an accident.
An Experienced Truck Accident Attorney Can Fight for Your Rights
If you were injured or a family member died in a truck accident, call a truck accident lawyer who can investigate whether the driver was fatigued or drowsy or otherwise negligent, negotiate with insurance companies, and settle your case or litigate it in court. We will fight vigilantly to see that you receive justice. Most truck accident attorneys handle cases on a contingency fee basis, only collecting attorney fees if they recover compensation for you, so you have nothing to lose by calling.